Jewish Genealogy Research

Jewish Genealogy #2: Borders and Boundaries

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Written by Rachel Silverman

One of the major challenges in Jewish genealogy is figuring out our immigrant families’ precise town(s) of origin in the “old country.” There are a great many roadblocks on the path to discovering this key information, not the least of which is the constantly changing political borders in Eastern Europe, leading up to the first World War.

Silverman_cousinMy paternal grandmother always told me that her parents’ families came from towns called “Lanovitz” and “Luba” in “Russia,” but that was about the extent of the family history she knew or was willing to impart to the next generation. In my initial searches for these places in Russia, I came up with absolutely nothing. There were no such towns, so far as I could tell.

Among the many things Grandma neglected to mention was a huge cache of old family documents, photos, and picture-postcards, stashed away inside an unmarked box, located in the back of a closet in her apartment…which I had seen her open only once in my life. Following her death in 2010 at the age of 89, my family set to cleaning out the two-bedroom apartment in which Grandma had lived for over 40 years. Over the three months that it took us to complete this daunting task, we unearthed trash and treasure alike, including the aforementioned box.

The photos inside were nothing short of stunning. I was particularly drawn to the images of young men in various military uniform. I sought the help of an expert in interpreting the markings on these uniforms. He was able to identify the epaulets and insignias that were discernible, which told us that the men belonged to military units based in modern-day Ukraine.

silverman_uncleBut how could that be? Grandma said the family was from Russia! The thing is, when these photos were taken, today’s Ukraine, which once encompassed a large section of the Commonwealth of Poland, was part of the Russian Empire.

At first glance, generic country indicators like “Russia,” “Poland,” and–my personal favorite–“Russ Poland” that we so often find on our family members’ US Census records and World War I and II draft cards may seem almost meaningless, since these labels do not provide any specific information. But, let’s face it, in Jewish genealogy, we deal with so many language barriers and availability-related obstacles that we can’t afford to write off information we think is too generic to be helpful.

Consider this: Our Jewish ancestors did not live in a vacuum, so it behooves the family researcher not only to ask where, but also when. I like to think of this concept as genealogy’s version of spacetime, and it is yet another means of keeping your search focused within the context of your ancestors’ lives. I touched on the importance of context in my previous post, “Documentary Evidence: Pre-search Research,” and it certainly bears repeating here. Pinpointing when your family lived in Eastern Europe–or any other politically turbulent region, for that matter–can be immensely helpful in narrowing your geographic search parameters.

A US Census record or World War I draft registration card may only give “Russia” as our ancestor’s place of birth, but it also tells us when they were born, and sometimes how long they’d been living in the United States, either by providing an immigration year or by virtue of their citizenship status. An immigrant’s birth year can be a great clue in determining how they report their country of origin in American records.poland_map

After you’ve figured out the when of your search, it’s time for a good, old-fashioned history lesson. It’s helpful to learn about the three Partitions of Poland, which contributed to border drawing and redrawing in Eastern Europe through the end of the 18th century.

In my case, the Partitions were particularly relevant: “Luba” turned out to be Lyubar, located in the Zhytomyr province of modern-day Ukraine. “Lanovitz” appeared as Lanovtsy in Ukraine’s Ternopil province, 86 miles west of Lyubar. Both towns annexed to Russia as part of the Second Partition (see map).

To double-check my work, I went to the best resource for Eastern European town name and political jurisdiction changes in different parts of the 20th century, the JewishGen Communities Database. This resource is not the end-all/be-all, but it’s certainly an amazing database with a ton of useful information. Try it out for yourself – you never know what you’ll find!


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